In the Season 9 finale of “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” in 2017, Sasha Velor faced off against Shea Couleé. As the two queens approached the end of their lip-sync battle, Velor left the audience stunned when she lifted her wavy red wig from her bald head and, to everyone’s surprise, unleashed a swirl of rose petals.
I often revisit that performance and reflect on the joy that it and so much of Houston’s music bring me, especially on days like today, which marks the 10-year anniversary of her death, on February 11, 2012. And especially as a gay man . Many queer people – and particularly gay men – see slices of their own struggles and aspirations reflected in the beloved superstar’s life and work of her, and her presence of her resonates throughout queer culture. (Remember that charming dance sequence in the 2018 coming-of-age movie “Love, Simon,” about a closed gay teen?)
But Guilbert’s is only a partial explanation. How did Houston become, and remain, a gay icon?
At least part of Houston’s queer appeal is the profoundly familiar isolation that edges many of her films and songs, according to Aaron Foley, a journalist and Houston superfan.
“There’s an undercurrent of loneliness in a lot of Houston’s work,” Foley said. “Think of ‘The Bodyguard.’ She doesn’t get the hero at the end. They break up. That’s the part of the movie that people forget. So, there’s a sense of longing, and a sense of trying to find yourself.”
The cerebral Velor sought to capture the feeling of isolation, among other things, in her show-stopping “Drag Race” performance.
“I saw the rose petals as a kind of iconography or metaphor,” she told CNN. “Loneliness, heartache, love, loss, grieving — I can hear different colors of all of that in ‘So Emotional.’ I wanted to take something broad like that, and just show how it builds and builds as her de ella (Houston’s de ella) performance de ella gets more intense.”
“Houston faced a lot of challenges with identity,” Foley said, referring to the singer’s battles with her racial identity and sexuality. “There were parts of her identity de ella that she kept hidden away and struggled with, but then there were parts that we saw in concerts – when she was glammed up and glamorous.”
Queer people can probably relate to that; there are times when we keep our sexuality concealed, particularly when doing so might help us avoid danger or scrutiny.
Simon’s dream is about liberation, about the freedom he believes he’ll find if he can get to a place where he can be himself, with Houston’s peppy lyrics as his guide. Indeed, it’s Houston’s music that makes Simon’s personal struggles grow a little dimmer. Of course, liberation isn’t a uniquely queer experience. But for a community that’s long suffered from casual and state-sanctioned bigotry, it has a distinct resonance.
“She was really the first one to do those big house remixes in a way we weren’t really seeing from Black girls,” Kennedy told CNN. “There was an element of performance in a space where queer people, especially Black queer people, were able to find freedom and liberation. That’s our connection with diva figures — how they make us feel, and it’s usually rooted in some form of liberation .”
So, maybe it’s actually a poignant brew of loneliness and liberation that makes Houston’s sensibility so appealing to queer listeners. After all, at the same time she acknowledged that something wasn’t right, she insisted that, eventually, it’d be okay.